Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”: I Told You So

After criticizing without having seen it the new show in the “Pretty Little Liars” universe called “Original Sin”, and pretty much only getting to see that there was going to be one because it was going to come to the streaming service that I’m on, it was pretty much a given that I was going to have to watch it despite my concerns about it.  I hate to criticize anything that I don’t end up experiencing myself, and so if I can do that conveniently  I will do so, and ten episodes on the streaming service that I greatly underuse is indeed pretty convenient.  So I sat down and watched it and now I have a lot to say about it, most of which will not be good, unfortunately.  But I had to think about how to comment on it, because I have quite a bit to say about it.  Given that, I didn’t really want to create one huge post talking about all its aspects, but I also didn’t really see a good way to divide up my comments as everything is connected.  Finally, I decided to split it up thusly.  First, in this post I’m going to read over the things that I said were not going to work and talk about how I was right about that and what they did with it, along with anything in there that I was wrong about (if there is anything).  Then the second post will talk about the character of Tabitha who I found the most annoying character I’ve encountered in a long time, mostly because she’s supposed to be the horror movie aficionado and yet both doesn’t seem to be one and is also not used at all the way that sort of character should be used.  Given that I’ve been writing about horror movies for ages now, that sort of character is one that I will pay a lot of attention to.  Then, I’ll write a post summarizing my overall impression of the show, including how well it links — or doesn’t — to the original series.  Finally, since the Rotten Tomatoes reviews of it consider the critical response to be “universally acclaimed”, I’d like to take a look at some of those reviews and see what they are seeing that I don’t (although I haven’t read any reviews yet, the ones I saw tended to follow the modern trend of maybe having higher scores with lukewarm descriptions, which might be indicative).

Okay, so let’s start talking about what I wanted them about by talking about the character of Karen, who was described thusly:

It’s Karen, who’s not just mean but racist and homophobic …

Given the rather unsubtle naming as well as mentioning that she was racist and homophobic, my main concern was that they would add on the claims of racism and homophobia and flub them completely, which would mean that she’d be more sympathetic than they intended her to be, and then raised all sorts of issues around whether she should be sympathetic or not and how her being racist and homophobic would align with how the town is portrayed.  The main issue was that if they wanted to make her an unsympathetic character but if they relied on her being considered that to make that work and yet the things that she did that were considered racist and homophobic weren’t that strong it would work against that characterization, and since she was the main foil for the main characters they really needed to pull that off to make it work.

And, of course, they actually did flub it.  The only event we see that could be considered racist is that she at one point argues that Faran — the main character who is her rival for the lead in “Swan Lake” — only got the part because she’s black.  This, given her purportedly “mean girl” personality, is not racist, but is instead, well, the reaction of someone like that when someone gets something that she thinks she deserves more.  It can’t be the case that Faran was a better dancer than Karen, so Karen needs to find some reason, any reason, why she got it regardless.  And an obvious one given the times is to say that the teacher or school was aiming at diversity or engaging in affirmative action and so decided to choose the black dancer instead.  If Faran wasn’t black, Karen would have found another reason to dismiss her actually having more talent than Karen, especially given how her father won’t even allow her to get the “she got it because she’s black” argument out by insisting that Karen was supposed to be better than everyone and failed there.

The same thing applies to the purported homophobia.  The event we see is that there’s some kind of “coming out” event happening at the school, and when one girl stops to look at it Karen snipes that she doesn’t need to come out as gay because everyone already knows.  Again, just like the above case, this isn’t an indication that Karen really feels that way.  This is the equivalent of Allison referring to Lucas in the original series as “Hermie” to imply that he’s a hermaphrodite.  She isn’t doing it to indicate how she feels about hermaphrodites, but instead is doing that to insult him with an insult that she knows will bother him and that others will repeat and laugh at.  Here, Karen really is just being mean and making a random insult.  There’s no indication that she has any real issue with gay people at all, as this is really just what was called in “The Order of the Stick” an “insult of opportunity”:  she wanted to insult the girl, and her looking at that poster was just a convenient way to do so.

So given that in both cases Karen’s statements are more aimed at the qualities of the other person rather than revealing anything about herself, we don’t really get the sense from them in and of themselves that she’s really racist or homophobic, and there aren’t any other events that I can recall that can do that.  And yet Faran makes calling her that a key argument in why they should come together to oppose her and do something pretty mean to her in doing so.  Now, I suspect given how minor those instances are and in general how unimportant the statements are and how little focus they are given it looks like they were trying to use those scenes as “code” to imply that she does far worse things far more often than we see.  But this ties right back into my concern that they were going to show things that they consider hugely problematic but that the audience wouldn’t.  The insult about the post was at most a microaggression, and the complaint about Faran getting the part because of her race is in general something that is claimed as racism through a bunch of derived meanings and a subconscious association.  Neither of them are strong enough to make that case, but given how woke and newfangled the dialogue is — seriously, it sounds like the worst kind of modern progressive slang that it could be a parody of it — I don’t think the writers would have been willing to go any further out of fear of saying something triggering.  But then this makes the association to racism and homophobic weak.  Fortunately, for the most part that’s a throwaway line, and in my opinion they should have just thrown it away, as they don’t actually go anywhere with that and so whether or not she really is racist and homophobic is utterly irrelevant to the character for the rest of the series.

Less forgivable is the fact that they utterly fail to make her into the powerful, sociopathic mean girl that requires the main characters to come together to oppose and humiliate her — and they deliberately humiliate her later — and to do so on their own because while supposedly everyone else wants to see her humiliated she somehow has so much control that no one can do anything to her.  This is despite the fact that the dance teacher pretty much humiliates her by not telling her what role she had in the ballet while saying that Faran had the lead, and is pretty much immune to her protests.  Additionally, she’s running for Queen of the big dance they’re having and is set to win … because she’s running unopposed, but when Imogen — the pregnant main character who used to be her friend — decides to run against her they all think it’s a great idea because a lot of people don’t like Karen and so will vote for the purportedly unpopular Imogen just to spite Karen, and indeed a number of people explicitly say that.  And their attempt to humiliate Karen by showing a slightly doctored video is justified by the claim that everyone really wants to see Karen humiliated.  She does not seem at all like someone who has control over the school so that they have to come together to oppose her.

Because of this, it makes the main characters unsympathetic.  Imogen has a video of Karen after they had their fight talking crap about her boyfriend and preparing to do a striptease with a different guy.  She never does it because Imogen came back and kicked the guy out — which is how she got the video — but they leave that part out and so imply that she went through with it.  They also edit it to look like a campaign video for Karen before cutting to that scene.  As it turns out, the reason Karen was mad at Imogen was because her twin sister said that she saw Imogen making out with Karen’s boyfriend, and Imogen’s only defense is that he actually kissed her and not the other way around, which makes her anger at Imogen pretty much justified and not irrational, and also means that Imogen never left the “mean girl” Karen because of those qualities, but because she was involved in something that rightly made Karen angry.  Given that, what they do to her is definitely above the pale and for the most part they aren’t all that apologetic about it.  Yes, there’s a scene at Karen’s grave where they apologize for it (Faran doesn’t really apologize), but for the most part Karen was clearly not as powerful as she needed to be in order to force them to oppose her, especially given how often in the backstory she doesn’t get her own way and is humiliated for that.

This, then, carries over to the way she gets them all in trouble so that they meet in detention.  A number of bad things happen to her and she uses that to blame them for it.  Razor blades are sewn into her ballet shoes and she immediately blames Faran for doing it, which the teacher stupidly believes despite there being no reason at that point — Faran already had the part — for her to do that.  Imogen and Tabitha get accused of defacing Karen’s campaign posters, and complain about the control that she has over the school when they don’t buy their answer of “She did it herself!” which no one should believe given that they had no other evidence for that.  Noa, who is on probation for drug use, has her urine sample doctored but has no evidence that it was Karen who did it.  Mouse, the other main character, is blamed — again for no reason — for putting a rat in Karen’s bag.  All of them conclude that Karen did that herself to set them up, but given what we had seen up to that point there was no reason to think that she could have thought that she could get away with that, and all of them were already hostile to her from the beginning, and far more hostile towards her than she was towards them.  When Imogen argues that Karen is vindictive and sociopathic, it falls a bit flat when they were far more hostile towards her early on and when she didn’t really seem to have any reason to think that her plans would work.

And this would have been so easy to fix!  All they needed to do was start with these events before the others — other than Imogen and maybe Tabby — were at all hostile towards Karen.  If they had done something minor that could have annoyed Karen and then these things happened that she blamed on them, that would have established that she had power and might well have been vindictive enough to try these things.  If the razor blade event had happened before the choice was made, Karen could have easily accused Faran of doing it to eliminate her from competition so she could have the part that was rightly hers, and they could have used the fear of losing out as justification without ever having to introduce the rather stupid “She got it because she’s black!” point, and Faran would have had good reason to be ticked at Karen for taking away her chance at the lead.  Then we would have seen that Karen knows how to manipulate everyone to get what she wants, and that she does it both to gain advantage and as retribution for even minor slights.  Then we wouldn’t consider the girls to be overly hostile to Karen from the start, would see why they are so upset, and would see why they wouldn’t think that anyone in the school would help them.  And this would still allow for the ambiguity as to whether Karen really did these things to herself or whether “A” did it (that they didn’t really do anything with).

It’s not like it’s hard to write a proper “mean girl” character, even one that you might want to keep ambiguous or sympathetic.  The original series did it with Allison and Mona, at least.  And it was done really well in the rather poorly received “Psycho Prom Queen”.  There’s really no excuse for them screwing this up this badly.

The other thing that I was concerned about was the attempt to recast the “A” character as a slasher-style serial killer, especially given that they wanted to give the girls individual arcs and issues like we saw in the original story.  My concern was that this would result in a rather tame slasher, as he wouldn’t be able to kill anyone that was at all important to those plots without ruining them, and so would either kill almost no one or would kill off a number of minor characters whose main role in the series was to get killed.  As it turns out, the series ended up doing both.  The killer only has two confirmed kills — Karen and some jerk jock who was the guy who filmed her — given that even though it was implied that he killed Imogen’s mother to start the series she indeed actually killed herself out of guilt.  There was a scene where I had some hopes that they might pull off something cool, where he had cornered Noa, but then he leaves her alone after getting her to jump onto another building that triggered her ankle bracelet (which could have gotten her in trouble which would have been a more manipulative move like the original “A” would have done) and then he prompts her about ensuring justice is done which immediately triggers her to rat out her mother for stealing drugs from the hospital (which doesn’t make Noa any more sympathetic given how quickly she leaped to that action with no real prompting) and then he lets her go for no real reason.  If she had done something to remind him of things like that and then he’d let her go — Imogen does that in a later scene — that would have worked, but she didn’t so it’s just a puzzling scene that adds nothing.  Thus, the killer doesn’t really turn out to be a threat.  Also, the time they take to develop the side stories for the main characters is time that they could have spent developing the killer and his motives and the backstory, but since they don’t the killer isn’t really fleshed out that much.  As I watched the last couple of episodes, I was both hoping and worried that they’d settle the serial killer story in the last episode:  worried because they hadn’t really developed it enough for that to be satisfying, but hoping because if they didn’t then they were going to do it in the next season (if there was one) and I didn’t see enough content in that story to last another ten episode season.  They did settle it for the most part and yeah, it wasn’t developed enough and part of it came out of absolutely nowhere.  So this confirmed my thought that the slasher-style plot was a mistake for a series like this.

And as it turns out they didn’t even manage to build the girls and their stories and personalities properly either.  We find out very little about any of them until about episode six, which is way too late to build up those characters and their backstories.  It also stops the serial killer plot at the climax which is a bit annoying.  They also introduce a rape plot — Imogen and Tabitha were both raped when they were too intoxicated to consent, as it turns out by the same guy — that they had to resolve in the last episode, and the only real link that had to anything else is that the girl who is the link to the “original sin” was raped as well.  But for the most part, the show focuses on Imogen and the others are background characters, and while there are scenes where they are unified they never really seem that way and spend most of their time apart.  This is another reason why starting out with getting them together and then revealing the “A” plot would have worked better, as it would have given us a better insight into their characters before they humiliated Karen and given more time to develop their plots.  I certainly could have found the issues with Noa’s boyfriend and mother and drugs or Mouse’s relationship with the guy who lost his father interesting, but they come out of nowhere and are resolved just as quickly.  And it would have given more opportunities to explore Faran’s relationship with her mother which would have justified her reacting badly to her at some points, whereas as is she goes from being happy that her mother will come home to see her dance to harping that she hates her and thinks she’s controlling.  Sure, in ten episodes there isn’t a lot of time to do things like that, but all that means is that you have to be perfect in time management, and I have yet to see a streaming show that managed to do that.

Anyway, for the most part it made the mistakes I expected it to make.  Next up is talking about a new mistake they made with the character of Tabitha.


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